I have been reading Virginia Nicholson’s book Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived without Men after the First World War, and I would certainly recommend it. I thought I knew quite a bit about social history in the first half of the twentieth century, but shockingly, I had never really given much thought to the women who were destined never to marry (or were widowed) when virtually a generation of men was killed in the trenches. These women were often middle- and upper-class women who had been brought up to be perfect wives and mothers, and the realisation that this was not to be was a terrible social shock. Not just to the women, though: Daily Mail headlines in 1921, after the census, screamed “The problem of our 2m surplus women”. These women were seen as a threat to traditional patriarchal society – and rightly so; they went on to challenge the Establishment and to bring about social change that was unimaginable before the war. These women, some of whom had tragic love stories of fiances and boyfriends killed at the Front, went on to achieve remarkable things: they became the first women politicians, barristers, engineers and academics, as well as inspired teachers and business women in all walks of life.
The first part of the book considers the hardships faced by a young woman trying to earn a living wage with no preparation or education for it, and there is much sadness in it. Women such as Vera Brittain who lost all the men she loved struggled to come to terms with their new lives, but faced the future bravely and achieved a great deal. By the end of the book it becomes clear that many of these women could not have achieved what they did under other circumstances; freedom from the traditional domestic barriers of a home with a husband and children permitted these women freedom to explore, to study and to undertake work which once would have been unthinkable. Their engagement in social problems and their desire to make the world better afforded the women who came after them to lead very different lives from those before; now, although perhaps we do not have complete equality in the workplace, it’s closer than the woman of 1910 could have dreamed of, and marriage and children are not the same bar to achievement that they once were.
Nicholson writes conversationally, with plenty of anecdotes and satisfying details. Although occasionally I found the prose slightly repetitive, this improved as the book continued, and it’s an entertaining and worthwhile read: these women are important enough for us to remember them just as we remember those whose lives the war ended. As one of these “surplus women” said, “Remember, it was the spinsters that kept the country going”.